Getting stuck with language

In my last post I talked about the ways in which humans learn to relate abstract concepts and experiences together (symbolic relations). I pointed out that we learn to take another person’s point of view as part of developing empathy, and that by interacting with our world we become aware of our place (here) and someone or something else’s place (there). We also learn “me” and “you” (not me), along with near and far, now and then and myriad other abstract concepts that our language can allow us to understand. I suggested that the flexibility of symbolic relations and the relational framing we develop as a result of this skill can be both a help and a hindrance.

Yes, we can remember that a pot can be used to cook, but we also can’t unlearn that relationship. And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with it. The pot will always be recognised as “something to cook with” although it might also become associated with a receptacle for water, a paperweight, a hat, and even a weapon – but when we’re first asked “what do you use a pot for?” we’ll almost always come up with “cooking”.

In relational frame theory, we develop the ability to empathise or adopt the view of another person based on perspective taking and contextual cues. Contextual cues help us learn the concepts of “I” and “you”  by moving from “here” to “there” to take the place of the other person. If a pen is here, and paper is there, when I go to the paper, it becomes “here” and the pen is “there”. In technical terms this is called deictic framing and this is how kids learn that some concepts only make sense from a given point of view – and here and there are two of those concepts.

How does this relate to pain?

Well, to enjoy being with others, you need to have sufficient deictic framing skills to “stand in another person’s moccasins”, to empathise with their feelings and to be willing to feel those feelings (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 32). The thing is, we don’t always want to feel what another person is feeling, especially if we’re angry with them, or they’re feeling sad or some other negative emotional state. We learn to put our ability to empathise on hold to avoid experiencing those feelings. We do this with our own emotions and experiences we’d rather not have. And it’s an adaptive thing – we don’t want to be completely immersed in another person’s experience all the time because it’s difficult to know what our own feelings are vs those of another. We also don’t want to experience all the negative things around us – we learn from them, true, but we don’t really want to feel them all the time. So we develop a skill called “experiential avoidance”. That is, we learn not avoid experiences we’d rather not have.

Experiential avoidance is a cool skill, it’s definitely helpful – it is a process that we use to avoid personal injury, unpleasant people, or situations we don’t feel comfortable in. BUT there’s a catch. Because we relate concepts to one another, we associate words with experiences and memories as well. This is also useful – we can recall the lovely feeling of summer even in the middle of a grey old winter! But at the same time, our most potent learning is often associated with unpleasant experiences, and so for me the sound of a rumbling truck can bring back all the memories of my house being jolted and struck by an earthquake. And because that experience is associated with feeling out of control, helpless, worried and unsettled, those emotions come back along with the memory of the earthquakes. All brought about by hearing a truck rumbling past! And talking about the earthquakes, for some people, is enough to bring back all those same memories.

No wonder, then, for some of the people we work with, just seeing someone walking by is enough to generate the memories, emotions and concerns they experience when they try to walk on a painful foot.

Because of our tendency to avoid experiences that don’t feel good, we naturally try to avoid coming into contact with those stimuli that evoke those negative feelings etc. For some people this can mean avoiding watching images on TV – I remember avoiding watching the tsunami in Japan that happened just after the quakes here in Christchurch. To me the emotions were too raw, I felt too overwhelmed by my own situation to feel I could empathise with those people in Japan.  In some of our clients, just talking about their own painful body can be overwhelming, bringing back unpleasant emotions, memories and thoughts. And indeed for some people, just seeing others doing the things they believe will hurt if they did them is enough to provoke both a negative emotional response AND an flare-up of their pain.

So. Experiential avoidance can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed…but it also stops us experiencing what is happening right now. And I think you can see how it can stop us learning, and it can limit the range of things we’re happy to do – not because there’s any threat right here and now, but because we remember what has happened, and we make predictions of what might happen in the future. The things that might happen – might not happen too! And the things that have happened have already occurred… but our brains are good at joining the dots and being a bit over-protective.

What this means for us as clinicians (and for us as people, too), is that we might need to be gentle but firm, and help people be present here and now. And gradually show people how to be OK with experiencing things that remind us of unpleasant events in the pursuit of something far more useful – flexible responses in a world that is always changing.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


  1. This was so wonderful and interesting.

    This may be off topic and a totally out the blue question (so I don’t expect you to have an answer), but you said, “And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with.”

    I’m not sure if you mean this to be just an example as a way to introduce the reader to your main point, or if this is actually a fact, but I wonder if this is true only because my grandmother recently has had her Alzheimer’s worsen at a terrifying speed, and in her suffering my mother has recounted several events where my grandmother uses things the wrong way or forgets what every day items are for.

    That being said, do mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s truly destroy the relationships we learn, or is something else causing that confusion? I am always wondering about these sorts of things, probably more than I should! >_<

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments. I’m afraid I don’t actually know the answer to your question, but it seems to me that some of the older connections between things need to be suppressed from time to time so we can learn new associations – so perhaps part of what happens in Alzheimers is that the newer connections get lost while the older ones remain. I don’t know and I’m definitely speculating!
      I used the example of a pot because it was a handy example and we can get so hooked up with it being useful as a cooking tool that we forget it can also be used for other things – in some cases it’s even decorative! In the case of pain, perhaps we learn the relationships between things like pain = injury or tissue damage that it becomes difficult to understand that sometimes chronic pain is about fatigue, or stress and not tissue damage (think of headaches for another daily example – headaches are typically dehydration, fatigue, eye strain, or stress but not usually tissue damage, but we don’t think of this in association with a sore lower back).

  2. Bronnie, your mention of “”deictic framing reminded me of the paper by my philosopher friend Professor Horst Ruthrof, who has written extensively on this topic.

    This piece is taken from the abstract of his paper:

    “… meaning in NL (Natural Language) always depends upon the combination of two components: aboutness (of which reference is a special case) and voice (prosodic contour), the latter modifying the former. The paper concludes with the observation that if deixis can be called a kind of verbal pointing, we need to acknowledge the complexities involved in its nonverbal precursor. I do so by foregrounding the reciprocity of projections of mutually presumed mental states as a necessary condition of human communication.”

    And, from the Conclusion:

    “If we call deixis a kind of verbal pointing, we need to investigate the nature of nonverbal pointing. Following the work of Michael Tomasello, far from being a no more than rudimentary sign exchange, pointing turns out to be an always already complex form of human communication. For it requires as a necessary precondition the social reciprocity of projections of mutually presumed mental states. The analogy, then, also supports the description of implicit deixis as a continuous modal shadow of linguistic expressions, as well as ‘intersubjective mentalism’ as a methodological requirement for the analysis of NL.

    Reference: Ruthrof H. Implicit deixis. Language Sciences 2015; 47: 107-116.

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